Can I Be an Effective Teacher and an Effective Leader?

Many teacher leaders have been faced with the question: Can I be an effective teacher and an effective leader at the same time? 

Fayette County Public Schools teacher Sherri McPherson works the red carpet at Think It Up! 

When I first started teaching in the early 90s, I knew if I wanted to advance my career or increase my income, I would have to leave the classroom and move into administration. However, within the last decade, administrative roles within many schools have been restructured to provide teachers with leadership roles that bear the professional authority of a principal or department chair.  These newly formed hybrid roles are known as teacher-leaders. These roles allow teachers to continue to teach full or part time, while also occupying a leadership role which may allow them to acquire new skills, hold a governance position, or provide increased income from other professional opportunities.

With this shift, many teacher leaders have been faced with the question: Can I be an effective teacher and an effective leader at the same time? CTQ blogger Justin Minkel posed a similar question in Does Teacher Leadership Hurt Your Teaching regarding the hybrid role of being a teacher and a leader.

One common concern about teacher leaders is that once a teacher becomes a leader, he or she ceases to be teacher.  As the argument goes, a teacher’s energy, attention, and time are consumed by the demands of leadership. That same energy, attention, and time is no longer spent on students and the ever-growing demands of the classroom.  There is a perception that teacher leaders lose their focus and are “out of the building” more than they should be.

However, as many teacher leaders will tell you, their professional leadership roles have buoyed and energized their life as a teacher, instead of depleting or detracting from it. Being a teacher leader does come with professional demands, such as presenting at conferences or attending professional development sessions that may occur during the school day. But the benefits of professional growth far outweigh the costs in time and energy.

In a very informal and unscientific poll, I emailed twelve teacher leaders in four different Kentucky districts. These were full-time classroom teachers, who also hold positions in district, regional, state, and national professional organizations.

All but one of them responded, and of those who responded, all but one of them reported being out of school for more than five days in the past school year. However, the part of the poll that resonated with me most was the passionate way in which each of these teacher-leaders talked about their work.

Sherri McPherson, a teacher-leader in the Fayette County school district, was recently showcased on a special one-hour broadcast, Think It Up.  This national education initiative highlighted her work with the Gates Foundation’s Literacy Design Collaborative.  She has been a teacher leader for five years, and on the average she has been out of her classroom only four-six days during each academic year for professional obligations. She says, “As a Literacy Design Collaborative implementer, my leave was focused on learning how to create reading and writing experiences that were rich and worthy of my students’ time. The time to collaborate with my colleagues across the United States, who also teach tenth grade English, helped me widen my instructional tools and strategies. My LDC work provided my students the added benefit of being on national television, an experience that probably wouldn’t have happened without my leaving the class for training.”

Taking time off from their role in the classroom to present at national and regional conferences helps these leaders become better teachers.  McPherson said, “I’m able to share with my students the very real skills I learn as a presenter: how to write a proposal, how to blog, how to handle nerves when you present, and how to collaborate using technology. All of these skills help me attain credibility with my students. They know I am doing the same things I am asking them to do in class. I talk the talk and walk the walk.”

Vicki Moriarity, who teaches for the Bath County school district and is a program coordinator for the National Writing Project, said, “When I serve in a leadership role outside of my district, I receive so many terrific ideas from other teacher leaders I can bring right back to my classroom and use with my students.  Additionally, it allows me to be a change agent in curriculum for my school and district.  I see a much bigger picture of where education is going and take an active voice in policy making that effects what I am doing in my classroom.”

All of the teachers I spoke with indicated that in addition to the training they receive from being a part of professional organizations, they are also part of a larger network of like-minded professional partners around the United States from whom they can ask for advice or assistance when acquiring resources, materials, or programming.

And, like all good teachers, the bottom line in becoming a leader was how their role as a leader underscored and supported their role as a teacher.  McPherson says, “Several of my students were able to participate in the Stand With Students rally last year because, as a teacher voice advocate, I am also a student voice advocate. How can I ask my students to stand up for themselves, when I am not engaging in that professional work myself?”